Off Broadway Reviews
Mars: Population 1
The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
The formula for a bona-fide comedic star turn is the same at the New York International Fringe Festival as anywhere else: Give (at least) decent jokes to a good performer who has great timing and the aisles will soon be filled with rolling audience members. In fairness, Anita Keal, who plays the outspoken Jewish mother Sophie, isn't the only noteworthy part of David S. Singer's new play Union Squared - this is, all told, a respectably funny riff on domestic dissolution. But Keal comes closest to updating a long-played archetype to 2009 delicacy.
Sophie, you see, is astonishingly accepting and forgiving. Her husband, who's been dead 16 years, amassed a fortune of $27 million through means of questionably legality? No problem, she'll just give it all to her son, Brad (Levi Sochet), a stock broker who's been teetering on the edge of a personal precipice since the economy began its downward slide. And when Brad's marriage to Rachel (Annie Meisels) falls apart, first because of his affair with yoga instructor Shannon (Carlina Ferrari) and then because of Rachel's affair with her? Easy: Sophie collects everyone in a room and makes sure they resolve all their issues before she lets them escape. And, oh yeah, ensures that the money goes to the best place rather than simply the "right" one.
As the title shrewdly implies, it's that lopsided love triangle that's really at the center of the play, and Singer skillfully milks its various facets for as many jokes as he can: Brad sends a provocative text to the wrong woman, someone's alcoholism and someone else's gambling addiction get hopelessly intertwined, there's an all-girls shopping spree, and even encounters with a jittery marriage counselor and a do-everything homeless woman (Keal is just as delicious in both turns as she is as Sophie).
There are considerable laughs to be found in all this, but it really is well-trod territory. Even with the unusual twist of a life-changing sum of money hanging over their heads, the characters and their situations could all still have emerged from a cocoon of 70s and 80s sitcom self-help episodes. (Weren't there five or six episodes of Three's Company with plots almost exactly like this?) Director Diana Basmajian does as much as she can within these limitations, and her fluid, colorful staging is ripe for comedy. The actors playing the lead trio are appropriately as tense as they are earnest - they, like Basmajian and Singer play everything for keeps, but how long does anyone want to hold on to aging cheese?
Keal, however, upends every expectation. As written, the laugh-a-line Sophie is more than just another Jewish mother desperate for money and marriage: She's a salacious force of nature who knows much more than she lets on. Keal doesn't treat her as a joke, but instead as a sophisticated trend-setter, the ultimate democratic model everyone else should imitate. In other words, she gives the youngsters around her the best reason of all to legitimately hate her: She's always right about everything. And, until her uproar- and applause-baiting exit line, she never falters. If Union Square doesn't, either, it could still benefit from the flair and originality that guarantee Keal's familiar role ends up looking and sounding like no one you've ever heard.
Mars: Population 1
With his (mostly) one-man play, Mars: Population 1, James Allerdyce displays an impressive devotion to reality. This future chronicle of Thomas Galloway, the first man to land on the Red Planet in the Mars Pioneer spacecraft, looks at space-faring concepts - from the stars to the Earth to the mind - in exacting detail.
The way the ship is buffeted about as it enters the atmosphere. The methods Thomas uses to maintain life support when an accident strands him waiting for a rescue just beyond the window of his remaining oxygen. The outstanding sound design (by Allerdyce and Jerry Morris), which renders switches, levers, and doors in ear-cradling, realistic clarity, and the lights (by Lauren Wright) that draw uncomfortable correlations between emergency alerts and reflected-sand red. And, worst of all, the suffocating desperation of being six months and 250 million miles away from his wife, children, and the rest of the human race.
For better or worse, this is as unromantic an exploration tale as is possible. But that's the show's strength as well as its weakness. Allerdyce's special effects are low-rent (an office chair is his command center, for example) and the show isn't ashamed of stumbling into unnecessary silliness - a hallucinating Thomas imagines that he's performing stand-up in front of an audience of little green men. But the evening as a whole captures the sacrificial spirit of the men who go where no others have before and risk venturing into the unthinkable for that best of all possible reasons: because it's there.
That's also what gives Galloway's shocking, but frighteningly clever, fate its real poignancy: It's dreams, not science, that drive humanity in all its grandest achievements, and which must be preserved at any cost. The final scene, which is far too special to spoil here, demonstrates that Galloway and Allerdyce alike realize (and perhaps resent) that we've hardly left our doorstep in the 40 years since our first trip to the moon, and never crossed the street. Both men clearly believe that reaching for the stars is vital, even if it doesn't always end the way we expect or hope. But if more plays as rich and thoughtful as Mars: Population 1 insist that enterprising idea belongs at the forefront of our collective minds, it won't be long before our metaphorical touch once again becomes a real one.
Mars: Population 1